by: R.J. Moeller
“Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”
-CS Lewis, Preface to Mere Christianity
There is what seems to be a contradiction of sorts in the human condition: we are at the same time unique, separate beings, and yet also unmistakably interrelated, communal creatures. We verbalize our desire to be distinctive from one another, yet spend so much of our time assembling groups to belong to.
Rather than needlessly spending the time here to quibble over which of these various descriptions of humanity best (or ought to) describes it, I believe we would benefit most from accepting these paradoxes as the realities they are and moving forward in our important investigations and discussions on everything from sociology to economics to politics with them in mind.
We have the capacity to retain our individuality while at the same time belonging to groups of like-minded people who come together for common purposes. Any relationship, whether with a spouse or a political party, involves compromise. It isn’t a question of “if” you will have to at times cede a portion of your individual preferences, but “how much” and "for what purpose."
The fundamental reason we argue over the cultural, political and economic issues of our time is because we all have ideas about the way things should be. Everyone believes in something. Everyone has a value-system that impacts how they look at the world. No one is a true relativist, for even the person who touts that "all truths are equal" has made a distinct truth-claim.
Knowledge and fact-collecting are obviously critical to our development as thinking, rational, functioning members of a free society, but even the most academic of books has been written by a human being susceptible to the same prejudices and biases we all are. This in no way discredits the vital importance of knowledge. On the contrary, it should be the motivating factor in collecting as many facts, opinions, and perspectives as possible.
It also points to the legitimate role our personal convictions and life experiences can play in the conclusions we come to.
The actual votes we cast at the ballot box are only the last, or most recent, steps in a life-long moral, intellectual, and often spiritual journey that ought to have began years earlier. The right itself to cast a vote does not exist in a vacuum, and carries with it certain implications regarding the duty we all have to ensure future generations have access to that same right.
So starting from the premises that: 1) there are forces at work in the human condition that both push us away in search of individualism and pull us back into the comforting arms of whichever communities we seek to belong to, and 2) each of us have a vested interest in how our society, government, and economy works and that interest is impacted by more than just statistics on a spreadsheet, I wish to venture the thesis that the most effective way to improve our nation and our national debate today is to better clarify and more clearly define what it is we believe as individuals and groups of individuals.
One of the most important influences on my life has been the writing and thinking of syndicated columnist and radio talk show host Dennis Prager. One of Mr. Prager’s most insightful axioms that he often reiterates when debating someone who disagrees with his perspective on any given issue is as follows: “I prefer clarity to unity.” By that Prager is in no way saying that he does not desire for people to get along with one another or seek the general welfare. But what he has correctly identified is this: that Americans are under the false impression that everyone has to get along at all costs; that the end goal of a free society such as ours is universality of thought; that how someone says something is always more important than what he or she actually says.
This, of course, is rubbish.
How can I be unified with my neighbor if I am continually forced to pretend that I agree with his lifestyle if his lifestyle includes, say, illegally selling drugs? How is the national discourse improved if dissent is disallowed (or even just discouraged) in the name of national “unity”? Who could label a church or synagogue “healthy” if her parishioners or members don’t in any way adhere to the basic doctrines preached on Sunday morning from the pulpit, and come each week because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside?
How can a nation hope to be unified in even the vaguest way imaginable if we do not agree on any of the same core values?
Clarity implies that all parties involved have been brought up to speed as to what is even being discussed or debated. Clarity is necessary before any other worthwhile step can be taken as a group. Clarity is not a guarantor of real unity, the kind exhibited by neighbors of various religious and moral convictions living side-by-side in peace, but it is a prerequisite.
What each of us can offer, what I intend to contribute in the coming weeks and months (and hopefully, years) with my essays under the title “Mere Conservatism”, is an explanation and defense of the things we believe in and what led us to believe in them.
For those who consider themselves a Conservative, Republican, Libertarian or anything else Right-of-Center, my intent is to clarify the positions and underlying assumptions of conservatism that bind us, however loosely. There is a two-fold purpose in this. First, I seek to further illuminate these conservative positions because while many of us learn liberalism from liberals, I fear that far too many of us have learned what conservatism is from liberals as well. Perhaps there are some Americans out there who might well be conservative in their actual beliefs, but have for superfluous and superficial reasons opposed these positions on the issues that more closely align with their values.
My second purpose is anchored in the hope that out of an open, honest, and thoughtful dissemination of what I believe the core, basic tenets of conservatism to be, a stronger coalition of like-minded voters and citizen-activists will emerge. The in-fighting that goes on among Center-Right Americans, especially between libertarians and religious conservatives, is beneficial to the extent it challenges us to remember the importance of each other’s positions, but is devastating to the effectiveness we potentially could have should we also spend some time focusing on what unites us in thought, word, and deed.
A quick example: Religious conservatives and libertarians share a common disdain for centralized power in the hands of mere mortals. This is a huge point of agreement. None of us want anarchy, and none of us want progressive, collectivist liberalism (the kind our current president bathes in). Certainly we disagree about the precise role a federal government ought to play in the lives of its citizenry, but a commitment to the Constitution and an opposition to the top-down socialism that liberal Democrats envision are two significant areas of common ground. We can stand by our personal values while working together to avoid the fate that befalls all nations that make social engineering and the Utopian promise of "guaranteed" and "equal" outcomes to their people higher priorities than liberty, property rights, and personal responsibility.
Now, for those reading this who would describe themselves as Liberal, Democrat, Progressive or anything else Left-of-Center, please understand that another seeming contradiction of the human condition is the capability we all have to dislike another person’s beliefs without having to dislike the person. I am conservative through-and-through, but recognize and respect differing perspectives on every issue from abortion to gay marriage to taxation and welfare. The service I hope to provide for my liberal readers is a thoughtful discourse and disclosure of what the “opposing side” believes, and how we came to believe what we do. Stick with me as I post these columns, and I urge you to engage and challenge my conclusions. Perhaps if nothing else my treatment of these ideas, ideals, and values will encourage you to re-assess why you believe what you do.
Today I simply want to lay the groundwork for what will be coming this fall and winter from A Voice in the Wilderness. To attempt to define and clarify any ideology or value system will understandably be met with some measure of cynicism and doubt. I completely understand this, and humbly acknowledge the limitations of my own intellectual competency. I am just a young man in his 20’s who cares about his country, culture, and community. I feel convicted to define and defend the things I believe, especially when I see so much gross misrepresentation of my conservative values occurring in the public square.
I am not an expert in economics. I do not hold a degree in history. I am by no means a learned theologian. And yet it is primarily because of these three specific areas of knowledge and experience that I am most comfortable with the label of “conservative.”
It is my opinion that a basic, “mere” understanding of economics, history, and theology is necessary for anyone who desires a coherent worldview, one capable of responding to the cultural and political issues that stare us right in the face every day of the week, every week of the year. What follows will be a conservative’s understanding of those three areas of knowledge and experience.
In the preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis’ masterful explanation of the “belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times,” Lewis describes his goal in attempting to clarify and define such a massive and complicated subject matter as Christianity. He compares the state of mind and belief he hopes to help his reader arrive at to a “great hall, out of which doors open into several rooms…
If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in…It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference…When you get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it is waiting, not as camping.”
“Above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’”
I hope as the coming weeks and months unfold that you will join me on this intellectual journey. I hope that the words I write, the exchanges we have, will be soaked with the same spirit of honest discourse, meaningful debate, and truth-seeking clarity that Lewis describes.
“When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall.”